It was in the Fall of 2007; Smt. Sonia Gandhi led a delegation to the United Nations. The occasion was the extraordinary General Assembly session to launch the International day of non-violence on October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. The delegation included senior Congress leaders such as Dr. Karan Singh, Vayalar Ravi, Anand Sharma along with late Pranab Mukherjee. Prior to the U.N. General Assembly session, Indian National Overseas Congress (renamed in 2018 as Indian Overseas Congress, USA), gave a thumping reception to Sonia Gandhi and the delegation at the Marriott Hotel in Times Square, where a few thousand people attended.
Before the meeting was called to order, at the reception room adjacent to the auditorium, prominent figures from the local Diaspora were rubbing shoulders and taking photographs and were busily engaged in chit-chats. However, one leader was sitting alone in the corner isolated from all the hoopla surrounding him. He was none other than Pranab Mukherjee, the Minister of External Affairs of India. As the General Secretary of the organization, I wondered why he was not interacting with people and walked up to him to inquire how he was doing. His security detail then told me that he would like to be left alone.
I have no explanation for his reaction then. But the more I thought about it; I concluded that he was not your conventional politician but someone who has elevated the level of engagement with people to find tangible solutions to the pressing issues of the time. He appeared to be disinterested in meaningless conversation or insincere overtures. News reports have revealed that he disliked socializing in the Delhi circuit and listed that he had attended just one private dinner in Delhi – hosted by Sibal. Mukherjee was never a mass leader but derived much of his political clout in his association with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and P.V. Narasimha Rao.
Addressing the Diaspora during that visit, Mukherjee said that ‘the future of India and that of the Indian community appear to be intrinsically intertwined”. He then paused for a few seconds and wondered out loud, “When I look at you and meet fellow Indians from different parts of the world, I often ask myself, what is it in us that we are able to adapt ourselves so easily to different societies, traditions, and cultures? Why is it possible for Indians to make different places their home and make themselves liked and admired? Then he answered his own question by saying, “While I do not always look at antiquity to seek answers to the riddles of contemporary times, I am convinced that many of the answers to the success of Indians at home and abroad lie in our history and culture.”
True to its creed, he was a Master of History and purveyor of our culture and traditions. All those who know him closely talk about history’s anecdotes he was fond of creating and retelling. From being an Assistant Professor in Vidyanagar college, Kolkata to the President of India, his remarkable journey was that of an intellectual and a scholar with a passion for politics and great loyalty to the Congress Party.
During the UPA-1, Manmohan Singh Government signed the historic US-Indo Civil Nuclear Agreement with the United States. It soon became a contentious issue for Democrats, and the Bush Administration sought help from all avenues for its ratification. INOC, under the leadership of Dr. Surinder Malhotra at that time, joined the campaign engaging in advocacy and promotion to make the passage of the agreement in the Senate a reality. The deal was an important milestone in cementing the strategic relationship between the two democracies that would pave the way for closer cooperation in the areas of National Security and Trade.
Pranab Mukherjee played a pivotal role in the agreement’s passing, but for the Left front, which was a coalition partner in the UPA-1, threatened to pull down the Government. A task force set up under the leadership of Mukherjee took charge of the situation, effectively troubleshooting the issues leading up to its passage in the Parliament. Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, in his message of condolences stated that “As Minister of External Affairs and Defense, he championed the landmark US-India Civil Nuclear agreement, a foundation of the US-India strategic partnership, and signed the Defense Framework agreement to enable the US-India security relationship we witness today. Few Indian statesmen played a more vital role in preparing India for the mantle of global leadership in the 21st century.”
There is no doubt that Mukherjee’s acceptance of an invitation by RSS at their convention had stunned the Congress party and many in the leadership. Congress leaders, including his own daughter Sharmistha Mukherjee, expressed displeasure at the former President’s visiting the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. He went there anyway and called the RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar as a ‘great son of India’ to the anguish of millions who regard him as a polarizing figure in Indian history. It is quite difficult to fathom that the former President could not have been aware of the Hindutva ideologue’s views that contradicted the very ‘idea of India’ that was planted and nurtured by Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru.
However, to his credit, Mukherjee has given a speech at the RSS meet that reiterated his faith in the country and its constitution. He said, “I want to share some truths I have internalized in 50 years of my political life. The soul of India resides in pluralism. We derive our strength from tolerance. We accept and respect our pluralism. We celebrate our diversity. Any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogmas and identities of religion, region, hatred, and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our national identity. India’s nationhood is not one language, one religion, and it is perennial universalism of 1.3 billion people who use more than 122 languages and 1600 dialects, practice seven major religions and belong to three major ethnic groups, live under one system, one flag, and one identity of being Bharathiya.”
Pranab Mukherjee was his own man with an independent mind and a steely resolve. Coming from a flicker of a lamp in a small Bengali village to chandeliers of Delhi, his immense contribution to modern India’s development will never be forgotten. Moreover, Mukherjee’s 5’3″ physical frame undoubtedly towered over most of his contemporaries, whether it is upholding timeless principles or proposing much-needed solutions to the nation’s serious Domestic and International problems. In his last address to the nation as the President of India, he said, “For the past fifty years of my public life, my sacred text has been the constitution of India, my temple has been the Parliament of India, my passion has been the service of the people of India.” That summarizes a great legacy at its best! Farewell, Pranab Da.
(The writer is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations and the Vice-Chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress, USA)